Sureshbhai Patel, police brutality and us

An Alabama judge just declared a mistrial in the police assault case filed by Indian citizen Sureshbhai Patel. There are a few reasons this case matters to me.

  • The court system has twice been unable to decide whether Mr. Patel’s constitutional rights were violated when he was paralyzed after a leg sweep by a police officer.
  • I’ve been saying for a while now that we make a mistake when we focus completely on police in police brutality cases: Mr. Patel’s encounter with the police was the result of a neighbor who felt threatened by a “skinny Black guy” looking at garages. An older man visiting his son, going for a walk in his son’s neighborhood, was considered enough of a threat to call the police. Others have died for being brown in a neighborhood they actually belonged in, such as Alex Nieto in San Francisco, because someone thought the existence of a Brown person in their neighborhood warranted calling the police. In each individual encounter it is the police who act, but it is the community that creates the culture for the officer to act. White privilege shapes how law enforcement (and so much else) functions in this country.
  • This story is obviously on my radar because it is being discussed in the South Asian community, but Mr. Patel’s paralysis has everything to do with the culture of anti-Blackness that is baked into our culture. Mr. Patel was a threat when he was perceived to be Black, in the same way that the teenager at the Texas pool party was a threat because she was Black, or the teenage girl at Spring Valley High, or Tamir Rice in Cleveland…all people who clearly are not threats except for the cultural understanding that Blackness is threatening enough to need control and suppression by armed police.

The first jury deadlocked on September 11, appropriate since that is the day that South Asians learned in a big way that while we had generally (although not ubiquitously) been considered “American enough” as long as we were not disruptive, that status could be removed at will by a government that violated basic constitutional rights and imprisoned innocent people because of their names and heritage, as our government has done in the past. As the second jury deadlocked two days ago, I am saddened but not surprised. And I pray it helps my own community recognize the need to be in solidarity with those on the margins rather than desperately seeking to be accepted by the dominant culture.

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